Nashville’s Quest for Broadband Equity: A Q&A

There are many organizations working on bridging the digital divide, especially when it comes to broadband access. Their tasks are about to get a little easier — at least from a financial perspective — since the Biden administration’s American Jobs Plan includes $100 billion for broadband expansion across the country. The money is earmarked to bring broadband to every American. In the short term, the administration rolled out on May 12 a $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Benefit designed to provide immediate relief. The new program provides cash subsidies for low-income households earmarked to pay for internet service and devices. Another important partnership – the NewDEAL Forum – brings together state and local officials in a Broadband Task Force. The group will identify obstacles to broadband access and develop solutions around them. The program will also focus on advocacy at the federal level.

However, none of these solutions have rolled out completely, and even where they have there are still huge gaps in knowledge and information. Very few cities have a clear picture of where there are holes in broadband coverage, and the data that is there can be flawed. A broadband map may say that a street or community has access, but the access may be splintered or missing for someone on the east side of a street and robust on the west side. In Nashville, this is certainly the case, says Fallon Wilson, Co-Founder of the #BlackTechFutures Research Institute and National Black Tech Ecosystem Association as well as Black in Tech Nashville. Once the Covid-19 pandemic hit this became an even bigger problem as children launched into online learning, and Nashville residents went online for food, services. and community.

Fallon, along with Nashville’s Information Technology Services executive project manager Pearl Amanfu, Assistant Dean of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion at Peabody College Hasina Akhtar Mohyuddin, and Samantha Perez, Vice President of Education Initiatives at the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce decided to do something about it. Together, they set out to create a broadband map of the city for its 1.27 million residents, she says. “We decided to form a coalition of organizations and raise the $170,000 needed for a city wide assessment. We raised the money and conducted the study. The hope is the results will help guide future broadband dollars in Nashville and be a national model of how to assess connectivity and digital access in a city.”

This is important work, says Maggie Farry, a policy analyst at New America’s Open Technology Institute who conducts research and analysis on internet issues including broadband access. “There are two problems. The FCC relies on data collected from broadband providers that measure whether the provider could — not does — provide service within a census block. If a provider can provide service to just one home in a census block, all of the homes in that block are considered served,” she explains. “We need updated maps to accurately reflect who actually doesn’t have broadband. We also need a holistic understanding of the digital divide that requires a more in depth kind of approach to measure the barriers to broadband adoption.”

Amanfu, Mohyuddin, Perez, and Wilson hope to provide answers to these questions — at least in Nashville. Editor-in-chief Karen Bannan interviewed them about their project. Below, read their story and how they’re moving towards that goal.

Q: How did your project come about?

Perez: Through my job to sit at a number of different tables and committees, and I was finding that in the literacy space, the committees that were tackling third grade literacy were talking about how to use funds to ensure students have devices [during the pandemic]. There was a lot of focus on getting students devices, because that was the most immediate need — students have been sent home, Metro schools have shut down. They were trying to figure out the remote learning situation. There was a lot of emphasis on redirecting funds to making sure that every student had devices, which was great, but these conversations were happening in silos. No one was coming together to come up with a strategy that included broadband and didn’t just focus on devices.

The pandemic magnified all of the existing inequities in our community, digital access being one of them. So while it was necessary that people focus on getting devices into the hands of students, that wasn’t getting at the root cause of why we had students in our school system that didn’t have access to those devices in the first place. What happens when we come out of this pandemic? How do we make sure that we come out better and stronger than we were before? And that was where there was a disconnect.

Wilson: People wanted to talk about children, It’s easier to talk about children in the digital divide, and of having devices and having access to the internet, than to talk about larger swaths of our community being unconnected and disconnected. That was the most challenging conversation, because people could see why we needed to help the children but they didn’t understand why we need to help their parents, too.

Q: Before the pandemic had anyone assessed the broadband reach and needs in Nashville?

Amanfu: Not to this extent. The information does tend to be a bit siloed.Metro Action Commission, social services — they have their data. Schools have their data, and they had done a survey a couple of times. So certainly there was a gap. As a city, we’ve always struggled to understand the full breadth of the issue because there’s never been a survey of this type.

Wilson: The closest we got to any conversation about digital inclusion and people of color and equity was with our Connected Nashville report. We  have a great CIO, Keith Thurman, who was able to really think about the diversity of that committee, so that when we wrote our report, it wasn’t just about IoT infrastructure. It wasn’t just about how we can maximize data analytics, improve governmental services. It was about how do we support human capital development and make sure it’s inclusive? How do we have broadband access? It wasn’t a survey, but it was definitely recommendations on what we should do.

Q: Tell me more about the survey work you are doing.

Mohyuddin: We actually divide this into kind of three different parts, two qualitative sections, and the quantitative  survey on digital inclusion and access. The two qualitative pieces were interviews with nonprofit partners and we did about 45 interviews with nonprofit partners across Nashville, both who provide direct services, and those who are more coalition-based to see how things shifted for them during the pandemic, and what changes they made to address the needs of their communities and the challenges and opportunities they had to make those shifts. Understanding the way that nonprofits have modified their services for their communities, and what are the needs that those nonprofits have to provide services. Also, how do they collaborate with one another because as Fallon and Samantha both noted, there was a lot of talk in silos.

The second qualitative part was focus groups with community members, which we’re in the middle of right now. Hearing directly from community members about their experiences. It’s one thing to get the quantitative data and the survey is another thing to hear the stories about, that communities are going through and how they think about digital inclusion and access.

Wilson: This is not just a digital divide issue. This is an issue that affects people being able to have access for work and being able to identify where they could get COVID testing. There are complexities with these types of large coalition building moments and cities. That yet again, I think people were not yet ready for a comprehensive conversation. They could understand it from the lens of children, and, and devices, having a more integrated conversation was was a bit a bit of a challenge.

Perez: There was a sense of urgency. There was relief funding coming, so we needed to figure out how to spend that money to direct it.

Q: Did you know how poor the broadband access in Nashville before you started your project? 

Perez: It was hard to quantify. A survey did go out for Metro schools, but they weren’t able to reach every every family. Reaching families, schools were used to doing that in person. If you don’t have access to internet, if you don’t have an accurate phone number listed, how do you reach those families? That’s important because those families tend to be the ones that need the most support. So it’s hard to even know how extensive the need was.

Q: What were the first steps in the survey process?

Perez: Segments that should be part of the conversation don’t always talk to one another, and, and we felt that it was important to get input from leaders in those various segments. The conversation itself, as I’ve mentioned before, has been happening since 2016 with connected Nashville. Fallon chaired the committee we call Smart People’s Education and Advancement committee. The survey itself was one of the strategies identified by that committee.

When we began this process, we knew to look at what other cities have done successfully with regard to city wide Digital Inclusion surveying, because the benchmarking is very important. We began the process of scoping May 2020 and presented a draft plan and a draft framework that we shared with the advisory group at multiple rounds, so that we could get input and so that we can tailor the questions specifically for for Nashville.

Wilson: At the same time we started fundraising and getting community buy in. Part of public interest technology is not only about the actual governmental services about also the pathway development on how we identify public interest technologists. [Public Interest Technology University Network] definitely has the pipeline network working with students within the university setting and training them for this new amazing discipline that’s going to be canonized. Part of the work I do with Andreen [Soley, the director of the PIT-UN] and what we’re working on is identifying alternative pathways into PIT that are not necessarily through universities. And so when I look at Hasina, when I look at Samantha, when I look  look at Pearl and myself is that we saw a city problem, we saw the gap and as individuals, we wanted to do something about it. We organized ourselves to organize a city to do right by communities, who don’t have access without a mayor backing us at that moment. Four women of color saw the need of a city, and decided that they would create a citywide assessment to know what the needs are. When [national dollars finally come down, our our current additional stimulus dollars are coming down now, the Federal Reserve and we think about infrastructure, we will have a plan on how to attack and make sure that it’s inclusive and equitable. We should be a model for the rest of the country

Q: What lessons have you learned? 

Wilson: I think an essential part of the framework is that city government cannot do it alone. And part of the challenge that we’ve had is that when there’s a need people look to city government And then, you know, we do what we can with the information that we have with the resources that we have nonprofits do what they can with the information resources that they have. But those efforts fall short, because it really does take a collective effort from all of these segments that have information and all of these segments that have resources. So I would say that’s, that’s number one.

Mohyuddin: Our nonprofit partners have been amazing, and both in just giving their time helping facilitate focus groups being willing to send out the survey. And I think the power of that collective is really important and to use that collective to really reach out to the communities that are typically underserved because they have those direct connections, and they have those relationships. And I think those relationships are really important in people being willing to share their stories and to share the things that are important to them. And so I think, you know, understanding the resources that already exist within these communities, and celebrating the things that they are doing, and making sure those voices are heard, and part of the conversation is really important.

Q: One of the tenets of public interest tech is make sure that the people who are working on the project are actually the ones that are going to benefit from the project. Tell us more about that the design and creation of the survey, and then how you’re getting it out there.

Mohyuddin: The nonprofit partners, views and interviews, we were able to complete before the dissemination of the survey, but the community, the focus groups with the communities are kind of happening in tandem with the survey. So the questions that are on the survey were, were partially curated from the conversations that we had with our nonprofit partners and the things that were important to them, and that they wanted to learn about in terms of digital inclusion and access, because it is hard to collect qualitative data in this space, we weren’t able to get the community input that we had hoped to get, honestly from the survey. But I do think that that is a next step that we would love to see happen in the next iteration. We did the survey design partially benchmarked off of other digital inclusion surveys, but we’re also trying to include the voices of the nonprofits that we were able to talk to to make sure that it is capturing data that’s important to our communities. We do want to make sure that this is usable by June 15, because that’s when many of our Metro departments are making budget decisions and trying to decide how they’re going to allocate funds.

Q: Why does this mean so much to all of you? 

Wilson: Each of us represent various demographics within our communities. I’m only one generation away from poverty. I was able to look at my family and think about the complexities and be able to inform some of the instrument that we created. For example, I loved asking people to identify their cross streets within their neighborhood, so that we can begin to at least estimate where there’s connectivity. That gives us more granular data to identify where the need is. But that came out of our own experiences. Samantha I’m kicking it to you to talk about the recruitment, and working with people of color to actually get people to it and do oversampling for people of color in our city surveys, which we don’t do. We talked about how important it was to oversample populations of color and making sure that they were not overlooked in these in these surveys and identify and we wrote a brief making the case for why we needed to do this work, and also included a section about what the challenges would be. One of those challenges is sampling people of color. Vanderbilt was wonderful in offering up some of their graduate students as research assistants. The Equity Alliance is a grassroots nonprofit that has just been a powerhouse has been all around civic engagement. They got COVID funding to do their own survey called Our Fair Share. We had a conversation with them, and they were on board for helping us administer our survey. They’ve been out and about administer and have been handing out gift cards for people of color recruitment.

Q: Where are you within that process and how are you getting the surveys out there? 

Perez: There are multiple channels for submitting feedback to the survey. Mailers went out to the homes of a randomized sample of Davidson County residents. There’s a unique link for a randomized sample and a secondary link for use with the public. We have paper surveys available, either for nonprofits who want to distribute to their members or for anybody who who wants to use paper. We have phone lines in six languages. We have a line that does teletype. The Equity Alliance is out in the field using tablets and they uploaded the survey into their reach application.